Humpback Whales – Megaptera novaeangliae


Humpback Whale breaching with Panama City in the background

Megaptera novaeangliae is the Latin biological name of the Humpback Whale. It is derived from the Greek megas meaning great and pteron, a wing, because of its huge wing-like flippers. Their pectoral fins are up to 4.5 meters (15 feet) in length, one third of the animals total length and have large knobs on the leading edge. The fluke (tail) can be up to 5.5 meters wide (18 feet) and is serrated with pointy tips. The head and lower jaw have rounded knobs each with at least one stiff hair. Scientists do not yet know the purpose of these hairs but it could be to detect movement in the water. They can dive for up to 30 minutes, but usually surface every 15 minutes to breathe. They can dive down to a depth of 500-700 ft (150-200 m) but rarely dive deeper than 330 ft (100 m) for extended periods.
Humpback Whales are well known for their spectacular acrobatic displays, for their extremely long pectoral fins and for their complex song. They often breaching high out of the water and can slap the water as they come down, and sometimes they rotate whilst breaching. Not bad for a male of up to 35 tons. The females are slightly larger than the males measuring 45-50 ft and weighing 25-40 tons. They were named “Humpback Whales” because of they way they arch their backs in preparation for a dive. In addition to breaching, the Humpbacks can be seen ‘tail lobbing’ and ‘flipper slapping’ in which they slap the surface of the water creating a tremendous noise. You can read more bout opportunities to see them on our page Panama Whale Watching, or you can go straight to the page, Booking Information.

Song of the Humpback Whale

Both male and female Humpbacks vocalize with “grunts”, “groans”, “thwops”, “snorts”, “barks” and “clicks” for social communication and use their voices for herding fish and Krill into their ‘net of bubbles’, but only the male Humpbacks produce the complex songs for which the species is famous. The songs, which are sung during the mating season, are of 10 to 20 minutes duration and the same song is sung by all the males in that group, while all the males of a different location, say Hawaii or Australia, sing a different song. They song also varies slightly from year to year. Scientists are as yet unsure of the purpose of the Humpback Whale’s song. The female seem to take little notice of the male’s singing and so it is more likely that it is to establish dominance within the group or for bonding between the males. The singing is extremely loud and can be heard 20 miles away. It can sometimes be heard through the hull of a boat or waterproof microphones can be used to hear it on board, but the best way to hear the Humpbacks’ song is floating in the water. Whales have no vocal chords and the sounds covering a wide range of frequencies are generated by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities, though no air escapes and their mouths do not move.

Humpback whale size compared with other Baleen Whales

Size Comparisons of the Baleen Whales

Humpback Whales, like the other Baleen Whales, do not have teeth, they have Baleen plates for filtering the food from the water. These plates were previously extracted from hunted whales but the advent of modern plastic materials replaced the demand for this. Humpback Whales feed in temperate and polar regions on krill and small fish. Baleen Whales have two blowholes causing a V shaped blow. The Humpback can expel air from its lungs in blasts of up to 200 mph that can shoot a spray 4 meters up into the air.

Humpback Whale Migration to Panama

The oceanic waters of Panama are host to at least 30 species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) with whales that migrate here annually giving us the opportunity to witness several species on a Panama whale watching tour. Panama (along with neighboring Costa Rica) is the only place visited by migrating Humpback Whales from both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. Over 2,000 Humpback Whales visit from the south between the beginning of July (some can arrive a couple of weeks early) and mid October (with some staying on slightly longer). About 300 Humpback Whales come from the north from Alaska between December and March. This is the only migration to cross the equator and is longest mammal migration that we know of, more than 6,000 miles (over 9,600 km). Whilst Panama Whale watching activities are focused on the Pacific side at the Coiba National park and at the Pearl Islands which are very close to Panama City, there are also Whales visiting the Caribbean side and so Panama whale watching tours can take place also at Bocas del Toro or in the San Blas Archipelago in the Guna Yala province.

Humpback Whale Reproduction

They migrate to Panama to breed and to give birth staying for about four months and they do not feed at all during this time. The females arrive here quite fat, but after four months with no nutritional intake and feed their calves between 50 and 100 gallons (190 to 375 liters) of milk each day, they leave here quite a bit thinner. The female Humpback’s gestation period is 11 months so she will conceive in the warm and sheltered waters off Panama and then return here to give birth the next year after feeding in on their favorite foods in colder water.
The female can reproduce from about 5 years old but don’t usually do so until they are 8 years of age. They typically reproduce every 2 or 3 years, although it has been known for a Humpback to calve in consecutive years. The life expectancy of the Humpback Whale is 45-50 years.

Humpback Whale Calves

Calves are 12-15 ft long at birth and weigh about 1 ton. The Humpback calf enters the world tail first and, although it can swim, is helped to the surface for its first breath. At birth the calves are pale in color and they darken in the first few days as the melanin level in their skin increases. The calves will drink their mothers milk for the first seven months before weening onto solid food. They stay very close to their mothers for a year so yearlings are probably making their first independent swims in Panama’s water also. The male Humpback Whales play no part in their upbringing.

The video above is from the famous whale watcher Anne Gordon from ‘Panama Whale Watching’ who joins us with our guests as our whale watching guide. You can see in the video just how close the whales will come to the boats but we have a strict behavioral code around the whales and will never rush towards them or surprise them, they can come to us when they are ready. Anne often talks to boat captains about responsible whale watching with practical advice and guidelines.


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